SPEEDING TOWARD A CHEMICAL DEATH IN CAMBODIA
For some commentators the amount of methamphetamines being used in
Cambodia could hurt the country and its youth more than the effects of
Sao Sony, 16, stares ahead with glazed eyes as he talks about his
escape from life as a methamphetamine-addicted child laborer on a
He remembers scores of friends and colleagues he left behind and says
he is lucky. He believes he escaped the new Killing Fields as
Cambodia, freshly emerged from civil war, finds itself caught once
more in a different sort of regional conflict that seems equally
beyond its control.
And this war against methamphetamines is one experts warn has the
potential to overshadow even the Khmer Rouge regime in its destructive
scale and toll.
At his farm in remote Phnom Proek district, a former Khmer Rouge
stronghold on the Thai-Cambodia border, Sony says, all the male
workers smoked the drug they call by its Thai name of "yaba."
He first tried it at age 12, when friends took turns waving a lighter
under tablets on foil or in bottles and then sucked the milky smoke
into their lungs through a straw. Yet others swallowed the purple or
orange tablets whole, so the effects would be milder but last longer.
A few had already picked up the new fashion from Thailand of mixing it
with their blood and injecting it into each other's veins with a
"I think about the drug every day, and I want it, but it has been one
year without it now and I think I am normal," Sony says. "Most workers
on the farms used it, especially the ones who work at night.
"At 14, 15 and 16 they usually start to use methamphetamines. It
helped me work long hours. I felt strong, not sleepy, but I also
became very thin."
Around 100km to the east on the other side of the farm belt from Phnom
Proek, it is late at night in the tiny village of Toul in Sampov Loun
district, and knots of youths are pacing up and down the main dirt
road, wild eyed, teeth grinding. Yaba is here, too.
"I'd say about 80 percent of people under 40 in Toul use [yaba], and
maybe around 40 percent of these are teenagers and younger," says a
user known as Korea, aged 26, a laborer. "It helps you work. It makes
you feel stronger and fresher."
Both Sony and Korea say it was at the farms that they were introduced
to the drug. The massive industrial farms on the Thai border cover
hundreds of square kilometers and were
created just a few years ago
when Cambodia's long civil war ended, freeing up huge tracts of land.
The land was handed out as a reward to former Khmer Rouge defectors,
government officials and wealthy landowners to grow commodity crops
such as soybean and corn.
Laborers come from all over the country to earn the precious hard cash
that is so difficult to come by in Cambodia's largely subsistence
After months of working long hours and using yaba to keep them going,
many return home to their villages, helping to accelerate the spread
of the drug throughout the country.
A lack of education about the dangers of the drug and the ease of
access to the drug as it enters over porous borders with Thailand,
Myanmar and Laos have also been factors.
With the average wages on the farms being just US$1.25 for a 14- to
18-hour day, rumors are rife that a handful of owners are supplying
the drug to ensure hard work and loyalty from their laborers.
Deputy police chief of Sampov Loen, Chan Dara, says his station has
brought farm owners in for collective "education" sessions to warn
them about what will happen if they find proof this practice is occurring.
At best, the farm belt is an example of what could happen to Cambodia
if yaba spreads further without controls.
What everyone agrees on is that Cambodia is a front line that has been
breached and the yaba problem is growing faster here than perhaps any
other country in the world.
The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) first reported a massive
increase in methamphetamine abuse in Cambodia in 2000. With 60 per
cent of its population aged under 25 and the majority employed in
labor intensive jobs requiring long hours and paying little money,
methamphetamines -- which produce a feeling of euphoria, hyperactivity
and dull pain and fatigue and sell for as little as US$1.25 per tablet
-- quickly gained popularity.
Now, in the wake of Thailand's crackdown on drugs, Cambodia has become
the new market with little or no resistance from the country's poor
social, legal, judicial and health infrastructure.
Initially the drug of choice for sex workers and laborers, it has
quickly spread to the upper echelons and emerged as a popular party
drug for the country's growing middle class of disco hopping youth.
"I would call it catastrophic," says Graham Shaw of Phnom Penh's UN
Office on Drugs and Crime. "Yaba will potentially claim more Cambodian
lives than the Khmer Rouge. It is potentially worse than a war."
The more insidious effects of the drug such as the spread of HIV/AIDS,
or engaging in unsafe sex while under its heady influence may not be
fully felt for years, warns Shaw.
Also of concern is the cost to society through lost lives, illness and
financial factors such as the laundering of illicit and untaxed
revenue reaped from a drug-fueled black market.
"Cambodia is at about the same point Thailand was five years ago, but
the trend has been much more rapid in Cambodia," Shaw says.